Bowman, Matthew. Christian: The Politics of a Word in America. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2018. 320 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

Date01 December 2020
AuthorMedlin, Eric

Writing the history of a foundational concept or term can be an inviting challenge for any historian. Eric Foner's history of liberty and Nancy Isenberg's history of class are well regarded today because they make clear, informative narratives out of inherently abstract topics. Matthew Bowman, Associate Professor of History and Religion at Claremont Graduate University, is attempting to follow in their footsteps with his latest book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America. Drawing on writings from the past two centuries, Bowman has created a work that is both informative and highly relevant to our current period, when Christian leaders are reappraising what kinds of politicians they want to support.

Bowman's goal is to dissect the role of Christianity in American politics and show how different groups, such as Catholics, white evangelicals, and African Americans, have used the term for their own ends. To achieve this daunting task, Bowman describes moments when groups argued that they were applying Christianity to guide the nation's political system and solve its problems. Bowman frames Christianity in opposition to the idea of "materialism," which appears again and again as the antagonist of the Christian politician. He defines materialism as an amorphous rejection of religion, an ideology that "denied the metaphysical claims of Christianity and hence threatened to corrupt the civilization Christianity had built" (p. 8). The materialist is obsessed with status, money, or power. Bowman's subjects find materialism everywhere, from the corruption of Ulysses S. Grant's administration to the white supremacy of race riots and the "secular humanists" of the 1960s. This approach helps ground Bowman's argument and provides a neat framework for an otherwise unwieldy topic.

Bowman is at his best when he is describing concepts that are unfamiliar to much of his audience. His analyses of Victoria Woodhull's presidential campaign, African American Christianity in the early twentieth century, and the tension between cults and evangelicals in the 1970s are all clearly argued and riveting to follow. Part of the appeal of these sections comes from the author's ability to add literary flourish to his narrative. For instance, Bowman begins each chapter with a literary description of a scene or encounter that introduces a key setting or a major player, such as...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT